It's A Given

Sure, charities and nonprofits benefit from employee volunteer programs, but what about your business?
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the September 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

For office manager Joan Baron of Alternate Access Inc., a computer-telephony company based in Raleigh, , the workday is full of little details. But what makes her day even busier is her volunteer work for Project Tanzania, a group searching for solutions to the poverty and famine problems in . Baron occasionally makes time for her volunteer work while on the job, sometimes sending a few e-mails and faxes from the office on behalf of the organization, or taking a few hours away from the office to help out. "[] is a part of who I am," she says.

It's also a big part of who Alternate Access' owners, Kelly and Adrienne Lumpkin, are. Throughout the com-pany's 7-year history, community service has offered a welcome diversion from building the company. Adrienne is active in Junior Achievement, and the couple even met while volunteering for a college MBA organization.

But what can the average entrepreneur of a busy, growing company get out of letting employees volunteer during work hours? A lot, according to Adam J. Goodman, president of the University of Colorado, Boulder's Student Institute, which does research on leadership and public service in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. Says Goodman, "Companies with effective volunteer programs have increased employee retention and better teamwork and morale."

Filling The Void

Baron is just one of a growing number of employees looking to community service as a way to give something back. In fact, a 1999 study by Independent Sector, a nonprofit coalition of foundations and corporations that encourages volunteerism and , found that nearly 109 million adults ages 18 and over volunteered in 1998, up from 93 million in 1995. Volunteers in 1998 put in an estimated 19.9 billion hours on activities where the only payment was a thank-you.

Why? It's a sign of the times. Employees enjoying comfortable salaries want to give back, and want to know that their employers have social consciences. "We're recognizing that community service is a given, especially for younger workers, and they're looking for companies that value it," says recruiting director John Worth of Deloitte Consulting, which recently gathered more than 500 partners and staff together to build a park in downtown Atlanta. Volunteerism has become an important recruiting and retention tool for Deloitte and other large companies, and smaller firms are quickly catching on.

is also making its way into many plans. A 1999 Points of Light Foundation study that surveyed a cross section of American business by location, size and sector, found that 81 percent of the companies surveyed had incorporated volunteering into their overall business strategies, up from 31 percent in 1992.

Employee volunteer programs also offer you some of the best low-cost image marketing that a company can get. "The public values volunteerism more than philanthropy, and it's easier to justify to shareholders," says Steve Rochlin, director of research and policy development for the Boston College Center for Corporate Community Relations in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Size Doesn't Matter

Young companies have rapid-fire problem-solving and organizational skills that make them naturals for community service, but entrepreneurs often have the misperception that size limits their involvement with volunteer projects-especially when they equate volunteerism with large corporations and their millions in charitable contributions and dollar-matching programs. Plus, entrepreneurial companies often lack a human resources director, making coordination a time drain when there's already too little time. In fact, the Points of Light survey concluded that companies with fewer than 500 employees often have less of a com-mitment to employee volunteer efforts. "There's a real tendency to think, 'I can't do that.' But size isn't an issue," says Jeffrey Hough, former vice president of corporate affairs for the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, DC.

Don't just think board memberships and corporate sponsorships-the typical route taken by entrepreneurs when it comes to community service. Volunteerism has to go deeper to engage employees. "Nine times out of 10, employees want volunteer opportunities but don't know how to go about it," Hough says. The Independent Sector study found that 90 percent of people join a volunteer project when asked, while only 22 percent join on their own initiative. Like a lot of other aspects of , it's up to the CEO to lead the way.

Tying community service to your company's mission is relatively easy. A small software company's techies, for example, can take a few hours on a workday to install computers at a local senior center and then teach seniors how to conquer their fear of technology. In this way, the volunteer effort is connected to the company's business purpose, and employees get some team-building experience and time away from the daily grind. "If employees are at the office 80 hours a week, volunteer work becomes a stress-reduction issue," says Susan Ellis, president of Philadelphia-based Energize Inc., an international training, consulting and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism. "People are working too hard these days, so it's a healthy thing to do."

At Alternate Access, Kelly and Adri-enne, 47 and 43, respectively, haven't written into their mission statement, but are flexible with employees who want to take on community service projects. Their philosophy is trickling down: At least five of the Lumpkins' 12 employees-including Joan Baron-have worked individual volunteering projects into their schedules, and the whole staff got involved this past year when the Special Olympics came to town, handing out medals and making banners. Kelly sees community service as important in the development of the whole person. "Volunteering gets you out of your box so you can look inside someone else's box," he says. "You have to let employees out to learn things. You have to encourage it, not fear it."

An easy solution to a possible productivity crunch is to make one day per week your company's volunteer day, and to create flextime opportunities. Create a rotating schedule planned in advance that lets a few employees take extended lunch breaks to participate in volunteer projects. With planning, everyone knows what to expect and how to adjust.

It's important not to make community service look like a mandate from above, however. The "you better show up," boot-camp mentality isn't a good way to encourage employee service. Employees will think they have to be there instead of wanting to be there, and enthusiasm will wane. Also, some people won't want to volunteer, no matter what projects are available. Just let it go. "Some people have the gleam in their eye to volunteer. Others don't, and you can't put it there," Kelly says.

You might be fearing that volunteering would take a lot of employees' time and energy away from their work and cause a distraction that could hinder company growth. That's definitely not the case as far as Alternate Access is concerned. The Lumpkins' company has won numerous business awards, including a listing in Deloitte & Touche's 1998 Fast 50 list of fastest-growing businesses.

Employees who participate in volunteering will see it as a company benefit, and will likely feel better about themselves and their jobs. Although volunteering has put more on her plate to push around, sometimes meaning longer hours at the office, Baron says she gets her job done and feels the Lumpkins' support has made a difference in how she sees her employer. "I feel accepted for who I am. I'm not pigeonholed," Baron says. "I really think that employers who honor volunteerism will create loyalty, devotion and motivation in their employees."

Making It Happen

A successful employee volunteer program should reflect your company's and values. Think about where you want your community involvement to be in five years, how you can shape your image through volunteer work, and the role employees can play. Here are some tips for making it happen:

Find out what's going on. What projects are critical in your com-munity or state? Find out through your local chapter of United Way or your mayor's office, or through one of the 450 Points of Light CVC Vol-unteers Centers (800-VOLUNTEER) around the country. Knowing what issues are in your backyard could not only help you select projects and give your employees more reason to volunteer but will also put your company on the cutting edge of what's happening in your town. With luck and planning, you might even be able to align yourself with larger companies in your area that are doing similar projects, creating net-working opportunities and increased media attention.

Discuss it. Ask employees which volunteer projects they would participate in if they had the time. If you survey your employees and find that certain volunteer projects stand out-literacy or working with disadvantaged youth, for example-you can see if there's a fit between community needs and your employees' interests. Ellis suggests putting a whiteboard in the breakroom where employees can post community service projects they've heard about. Set some time aside to discuss the issue with them. Maybe someone on staff would like to act as a volunteer coordinator or as a liaison with community organizations.

Create a mix of individual and group projects. You can't get the benefits of team building from individual projects. Adding in a staffwide community project now and then can get everyone working together. Give the whole group a larger perspective about what their participation means for the company and the community. Recognize your employees who volunteer; get clued into what they're doing and what they're learning.

In the end, promoting volunteerism in your company is simply a matter of making it a priority, the earlier the better. As your company expands, you can consider dollar-matching options for employee volunteer work. But for now, incorporate volunteerism into your company's mission statement and formal plan. "If you build it in early," says Hough, "it becomes the foundation on which the company grows."

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